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Carrying Dad home from Israel

| Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

As we boarded our flight in Tel Aviv, carry-on baggage in hand, I turned to my little sister, Ilana.

“Should we stow Dad in the overhead compartment?” I asked.

“Beats checking him in our luggage,” she replied. “What if the airlines lost him?”

We hoisted the box containing our father's ashes into the overhead bin. Ten days after his somewhat sudden death at age 66 during a visit to his native Israel, we were transporting him back to the States.

The grief trip is inevitably tough. We journey for people we love. For me and my 24-year-old sister, that journey involved bringing Dad back in a box. Judaism forbids cremation, but obviously, our Jew-ish father did not. He wanted his ashes spread around his home in western Massachusetts.

There's only one crematorium in Israel, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. The day before our flight, we picked up his ashes in a cardboard box, inside a purple gift bag, ready for transport. A few hours later, we were joking that we were transporting chocolate Kinder eggs in that bag. Dad would have preferred the chocolate, anyway.

Unfortunately, the security guards at Ben Gurion Airport did not share the sense of humor of two 20-something foreigners traveling with a box of off-white powder.

We repeatedly explained our “Dad-in-a-box,” appropriate paperwork in hand. “Did you watch him get cremated? Please be honest,” a particularly stern guard with a submachine gun asked at the final checkpoint.

“Uh, no,” I replied. For a second, I thought he wouldn't let us go.

“I'm sorry for your loss,” he said. “Next, please.”

The last four years of my dad's life were frustratingly humorless. A sudden brain injury and diabetic complications had left him unconscious for weeks. In his early 60s, he had to learn to talk, walk, think and type all over again. He improved but never fully recovered.

On our way home, we didn't care if fellow passengers overheard us talk about our extra baggage, physical and emotional. An avid traveler, my father organized international tours for orchestras, most prominently as the managing director of the Pittsburgh Symphony. He once proudly smuggled a six-figure violin through U.S. Customs without declaring it. He would have appreciated his final journey.

My father carried me so many times in his arms. He supported me as a teen, college student, young professional. Carrying me was never a problem for him.

But my baggage? “You pack it, you carry it,” he always said.

Relatively, Dad was an easy load.

Shira Toeplitz is a politics editor for Roll Call. Follow her on Twitter: @shiratoeplitz.

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